Native Americans have been depicted in film since the earliest days of Hollywood, but often in ways that pushed negative and offensive stereotypes.
A sea change has occurred in recent years, with the success of Native-led film and TV film projects including Peacock’s sitcom “Rutherford Falls,” the drama “Wild Indian” and FX’s dramedy “Reservation Dogs.”
Now, Native American tribes are working to expand their role in film and TV production to help revitalize and diversify their lands’ economies, as well as improve representation of Indigenous people onscreen.
While some states have included diversity as part of the qualifications for their production tax incentives, last week the Cherokee Nation went a step further, introducing what it said was the first film incentive offered by a Native American tribe — a cash rebate of up to 25% — to filmmakers who shoot on its land. The credit is in addition to Oklahoma’s existing film tax credit.
“Helping an industry get introduced to the region and to [get] a foothold is important,” said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. “Those are all great opportunities for our people and really just to generate some economic vitality in an area that could use it.”
Oklahoma is not a big destination for Hollywood productions. But its film business has been growing rapidly in recent years as the state has beefed up its incentives.
Despite the pandemic, production expenditures in Oklahoma reached $170.4 million in fiscal year 2021, up from $32.6 million in the previous year.
Among the projects that have filmed in Oklahoma are “Reservation Dogs”; the film “Stillwater” featuring Matt Damon; HBO Max’s “Land of Gold”; and Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the upcoming Apple+ film about the murder of members of the Osage tribe in mysterious circumstances in the 1920s.
Scorsese’s western shot a few days on Cherokee land and worked with its film office on casting, an experience tribal leaders are hoping to build on.
The Cherokee Nation film incentive push began in 2019, when the tribe formed the Cherokee Nation Film Office, with a mission to help filmmakers shoot on its lands and improve representation in front of and behind the camera.
In 2021, UCLA produced a Hollywood Diversity Report that found that in the 2019-20 season, not one broadcast, cable or digital scripted show had cast a Native person in a lead role.
To help address that problem, the Cherokee Nation has developed directories of local Native American actors and artists so that when productions come calling, casting is made easier. There is also a directory for Native American crew.
“There’s more responsible and authentic storytelling going on, and for Native peoples that’s very important because for generations other people would tell the story of Native Americans,” Hoskin said. “The ability to take control of that storytelling directly is important, so we want opportunities for our own creative artists to tell their story.”
Starting next month, the film office will begin accepting applications for a new cash-rebate incentive fund offering up to $1 million annually for production expenses over $50,000 in Oklahoma, of which $25,000 must be spent within the boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. The credit is in addition to a 38% rebate offered by the state.
Any production money spent within the boundaries, excluding wages, qualifies for a 20% rebate, and that figure is 25% if the spending is with a Native-owned business. The rebate can be up to 25% for above-the-line wages for Native Americans and for Native below-the-line crew who reside in the Cherokee Nation.
The Cherokee Nation spans 7,000 square miles over 14 counties covering parts of big cities like Tulsa as well as rural towns and farmland, forests and springs.
The reservation also holds a modern 27,000-foot-facility with a virtual soundstage. Such stages use CGI technology to simulate locations from around the world and have been especially popular during the pandemic.
The film or TV show doesn’t have to be Native American-themed, but Cherokee Nation will consider the projects by merit rather than on a first come, first serve basis, with attention paid to projects that might help dispel stereotypes about Indigenous people.
“This has the potential to be revolutionary when it comes to Indigenous filmmaking because what we want to do is use this film incentive to create a Native film hub in northeastern Oklahoma,” said Jennifer Loren, director of Cherokee Nation Film Office and Original Content.
The tribe has partnered with schools like Oklahoma State University to create training opportunities for Cherokee citizens.
“We are being extremely strategic about building this industry here in a very smart way so that we are creating jobs that will not just be temporary, so that we can have an industry that is here year-round,” Loren added.
Special effects makeup artist Tate Steinsiek, whose studio is on Cherokee Nation land in Tulsa, said the film incentive will allow more film technicians like him to work closer to home. He said he has already reached out to producers to talk about the new film rebate.
“I called them all in a row and I said, ‘Listen, let’s make movies here,’” said Steinsiek. “I already had two of the producers get back to me very excitedly and asked me to set up a call with them this week.”
Joseph Chianese, senior executive vice president of Burbank-based Entertainment Partners, which advised the Cherokee Nation Film Office, said the tax rebate is the first from a tribe.
“What they have there is great, and the incentive is just another sort of hook to make people aware that they’re there,” Chianese said.
Other Native-owned studios have launched in recent years. In 2020, New Mexico’s Tesuque tribe opened a 75,000-square-foot studio facility north of Santa Fe called Camel Rock Studios in a bid to give the local community a stake in the state’s booming film industry.
Navajo Nation opened a film and TV office in 2018, issuing permits for filming on its land and assisting productions with location scouting and crew searches.
The Cherokee Nation fund also reflects a trend of regional incentives that are added to state tax breaks to spread the economic benefits of filmmaking beyond big hubs like Los Angeles or New York City.
Chianese sees more Native American tribes taking part in the film industry.
“California’s primed right now for the Indigenous nations to potentially develop stages and again develop content that we’ve seen coming out of places like Oklahoma,” Chianese said.
California Film Commission Executive Director Colleen Bell agreed.
“Native American tribes are well positioned to play a more vital role in our state’s film and TV production industry,” Bell said. “As tribes seek to diversify and expand their businesses, there are opportunities to develop production infrastructure, contribute to workforce diversity and foster new storytelling voices.”